Upon taking over as head coach of USF football in 2013, Willie Taggart was far from impressed with the fitness and strength of the team he inherited.
“When you have me benching more than some guys, then we’ve got issues,” Taggart said at an offseason tour stop in 2014. “Player development was not where it needed to be.”
After the Bulls won only two games in 2013, Taggart fired former strength and conditioning coach Hans Straub after he sent out a tweet that criticized the San Francisco 49ers for drafting former USF defensive end Aaron Lynch.
With a void on the staff, Taggart quickly hired former West Virginia strength and conditioning coach Irele Oderinde, who played under Taggart as a defensive lineman at Western Kentucky.
“We needed to get stronger and we still need to get stronger,” Oderinde said. “By no means are we where we want to be, but when I got here, our overall strength was definitely one of the things that we needed. We needed strength. We needed a purpose, attitude, confidence. There was a lot we needed to develop.”
The strength the Bulls have added since Oderinde’s arrival in 2014 has gone hand-in-hand with USF’s turnaround from a team at the bottom of the AAC to one that’s in the midst of playing for a conference championship.
Several Bulls have added significant weight since just last season, with 11 players gaining at least 10 pounds over the offseason.
As a unit, the average weight for a starter on the offensive line has jumped from 308 to 317 pounds since 2014, aiding in the protection of quarterback Quinton Flowers and the Bulls’ potent rushing attack of Marlon Mack and D’Ernest Johnson.
One of those lineman who’s made strides in the weight room since Oderinde was hired is the 6-foot-1, 330-pound senior Dominique Threatt, who tied former defensive lineman Todd Chandler’s school-record squat of 700 pounds this summer.
“I’ve improved a lot,” Threatt said. “When I first came in, I had high school strength. Now I actually have power. I can show it on the field.
“Squatting 700 pounds (has been my biggest accomplishment). I was kind of skeptical going in, but when I did it, I did it kind of easy so it made me think I should have done more, but safety comes first.”
Senior defensive tackle Daniel Awoleke, who earned a scholarship last season after playing as a walk-on, said he’s been stronger than his peers since middle school, but has had to work harder than ever before in the weight room since coming to USF.
“Around sixth or seventh grade, I was a lot heavier than the other guys,” the 6-foot-5, 295-pound Awoleke said. “I would just dominate them completely because I was a lot bigger than them. I played defensive line and I had a whole bunch of tackles and sacks, it was so easy for me to get back there.
“My strength has grown tremendously since coming here, it was a big jump. But it’s taken a lot of work over the years. It’s easier for me to control guys as far as the offensive lineman. When I get my hands on them, it’s real easy for me to get off them and shake them off. I can basically throw them around.”
The senior defensive tackle added 12 pounds over the offseason and now benches 475 pounds, 50 pounds more than the next closest Bull.
Through nine games in 2016, Awoleke is having his best year at USF with 22 tackles, including two tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble.
When it comes to the strongest players on the team, Threatt and Awoleke point to the guys playing in the trenches.
“You have Deadrin (Senat), you have Gonzo (Marlin Gonzalez), you have me, you have Kofi (Amichia),” Threatt said. “The running backs can even get down in the weight room too.”
Awoleke agreed, pointing to Senat as the toughest guy on the field.
“Deadrin and Gonzo, those are two guys who are really strong, man,” Awoleke said. “Also Cecil (Cherry). He’s so strong for his size, he’s a really strong linebacker. But Deadrin’s just a dog, he’s so stout, so strong. It’s hard to move him. You think twice about going against him.”
Since the hiring of Oderinde in the summer of 2014, the Bulls have gone from a two-win team to one that’s won seven of nine in 2016 with a chance to challenge the best record in school history since they went 9-2 in 2002.
“Ah man, it’s the fight,” Awoleke said. “From spring, through the summer training, it’s just remembering that we put the work in, and we’ve done what we need to do as a group. We’ve done a real good job to be 7-2, we just have to keep it up so we can end up on top.”